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History of Mining   

Phalaborwa is home to what is now the largest open cast mine in the world. The Lowveld is rich in mining resources and there is a long history of their exploitation.

Ancient History

The original carbonate outcrop was a large hill known as Loolekop. The surface of the hill was once littered with primitive workings excavated by local tribesmen. Primitive smelting was carried out in the surrounding hills.

The Arabs and possibly even the Phoenicians before them, traded for slaves, gold, ivory and copper in Africa. The Portuguese were amongst the first Europeans to penetrate into the interior. The copper and iron deposits of Loolekop were also known to the Dutch East India Company.

Although a considerable amount of copper was produced over the centuries, very few artifacts have been discovered. The only copper articles known are about 20 strangely shaped ingots locally known as the "mirale" (singular: "lirale") and a few dozen armlets. The mirale consisted of a cylindrical bar 1,5cm thick and 45cm long with a flat cone-shaped end piece and it is believed that they were used as a primitive currency. In the town of Phalaborwa several interlinked armlets were unearthed in a house foundation about 25cm below the surface. These contained 97.8% copper and 1.65% iron.

During the stripping of the surface of Loolekop in 1964, early underground mines were exposed. Some of the ancient shafts were up to 20m deep yet only 38cm wide. The walls of these shafts where smoke-stained and charcoal fragments from the floors of two stopes indicated an age of 1,000-1,200 years.

In 1934 the first modern mining started with the extraction of apatite for use as a fertiliser. The remoteness of the area lead to the termination of the first mining ventures. Interest however remained and 1946 a well known South African geologist Dr. Hans Merensky started an intensive prospecting on Loolekop to establish the existence of economic deposits of apatite in the foskorite rock. In the early 1950s the area was discovered to be radioactive - the uranium content was however not economic for mining. In the process of this prospecting a very large low grade copper sulphide ore body was discovered which proved to be potentially exploitable.

A joint venture between Rio Tinto Zinc and Newmont Mining followed and resulted in the formation of the Phalaborwa Mining Company in 1956. During 1957 to 1962 the ore body was proved and a pilot plant operation was built. In 1966 production commenced in one of the largest open pit copper mines of the world. The mine is currently undergoing another major transition from wholly open-cast to an exclusively underground operation.

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